Commentary: All of a sudden, John Cleese wants to spend time with me.
The actor and performer, who rose to fame with the Monty Python troupe, has been hounding me on Facebook to arrange a personalized video message or a brief Zoom call to chat in person – like a distant uncle eager to catch up with a nephew, except that Cleese has no idea who I am, has no reason to care, and he and I both know it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted film productions, closed theaters and concert venues, and many celebrities find themselves at home with less to do – and less income.
Cameo is an internet service that brokers personal interactions with famous people. For a price, you can engage one of these icons to send you or someone else a short, personalized video clip. I could, for instance, have John Cleese insult my father on his birthday.
For significantly higher prices, some of the celebrities will agree to a 10-minute Zoom call. NFL player emeritus Brett Favre reportedly charges $5,000 for a chat. Actor Jeremy Piven recently made news for charging as much as $15,000, although the option has since been removed from his profile.
Cameo has stated it expects more than $100 million in bookings this year as it recruits more and more celebrities, past and present. Here is one industry that is thriving thanks to the coronavirus.
The essence of this is nothing new. People have long stood in line to meet famous people who are paid to make appearances, interact with fans, maybe sign books or other memorabilia.
Our fascination with celebrities and desire to touch them personally, rather than simply appreciate their works, is the hook by which commodity culture persuades us to pay. Celebrity endorsements have long been effective in selling merchandise, and services like Cameo, Fanmio and the like afford famous people an easy way to market themselves directly to consumers.
Sociologist Chris Rojek wrote in 2001: “Celebrities humanize the process of commodity consumption. Celebrity culture has emerged as a central mechanism in structuring the market of human sentiments. Celebrities are commodities in the sense that consumers desire to possess them.”
All the way back in 2001, Rojek observed that our fascination with celebrities is accompanied by a desire to project ourselves as objects that incite others to feel desire and approval, to become celebrities ourselves. Think about how we use social media platforms.
Culture has become mediagenic, so it seems natural that John Cleese wants to catch up and feign interest in my life for a few minutes and a fee.
I might just sign up, and ask him if he’s read Rojek.